Sage grouse winter range discussedWritten by Emilee Gibb
Casper – Natural resource experts and stakeholders from around the state gathered in Casper on Sept. 8-9 for research updates, panel discussions and other presentations on the current status of habitat restoration during the Wyoming Habitat Restoration Workshop.
The workshop was presented by the Wyoming Reclamation and Restoration Center and the University of Wyoming (UW) School of Energy Resources.
During the conference, UW PhD Candidate Kurt Smith presented his research comparing the current core area stipulations for Greater sage grouse to their use of winter habitat.
“We’re interested in evaluating how well the core area concept that was designed for breeding habitat does at protecting winter habitat for these birds,” said Smith.
Greater sage grouse are defined as a landscape species, meaning that they migrate over a large range of habitat throughout the year.
“They exhibit long distance movements between seasonal habitats. Even within those seasonal habitats, they can have a lot of movement,” explained Smith.
Typically, birds will show a high fidelity to seasonal areas, returning to the same locations year-after-year.
Not all birds will move over large distances to access seasonal habitat, however.
“The species is a partial migrant, so some individuals within the same species will move to distinct seasonal ranges, whereas others will stay in a single location,” said Smith.
In Wyoming studies, it was found that birds will travel an average of 14.5 kilometers from their nest to winter range.
Smith explained that the core areas were developed based on leks and buffers around the leks to protect breeding habitat.
“I would say it works pretty darn well in terms of how it was designed for breeding habitat,” said Smith.
There are winter use stipulations that are put into place through the Natural Resource Conservation Service, depending on location and the concentration of birds at the site. The stipulations are largely based on what is defined as a winter concentration area.
“Winter concentration areas are areas where a large concentration of core area birds – so birds that are breeding in core areas – congregate and occupy from Dec. 1 to March 14,” continued Smith.
The definition typically includes groups that are consistently 50 birds or greater.
If a non-core area is identified as a concentration area, a seasonal use restriction is put into place from Dec. 1 to March 14. Core areas identified as concentration areas receive the most protection.
“There’s the seasonal use restriction, but then there’s also the five percent disturbance cap,” said Smith.
Core versus non-core
As part of their study, Smith and his team gathered 44,000 tracked locations from 77 individual birds.
“In our Big Horn Basin site, we had about 56 percent of individuals nested in core. Of those, about 63 percent of their winter use was in core,” said Smith.
Alternatively, approximately 30 percent of use was outside of core areas.
“Nearly 18 percent wintered entirely outside of core, so there’s a pretty substantial amount of use that is outside of core areas,” he continued.
In that study area, birds moved an average of 8.5 kilometers to winter range. Their winter range movement was from Oct. 26 to March 21.
“As we can see, they’re moving earlier and staying a little bit later than current timing stipulations,” said Smith.
Less movement was found in the Jeffery City study area, but similar winter range movement times were found.
“Our current seasonal use stipulations of Dec. 1 to March 14 are not quite matching the time of use that we’re seeing at a fine scale,” he concluded.
“Basically, we assessed seasonal home ranges and looked at the overlap with ranges in relation to core areas,” explained Smith.
He noted that more overlap occurred in larger core areas, which could be seen in comparing two of the study areas used.
In the Greater South Pass site, “The ratio of summer to winter use was a little less than one. That’s indicating that summer use is pretty well related to winter use,” said Smith.
Alternatively, the much smaller Rawlins site had a ratio of proportional use of 0.44 in the summer and 0.12 in the winter.
“Individuals are using these core areas much more in the summer than in the winter,” he continued.
According to the study, Smith determined that core areas do not proportionally protect winter habitat as well as they protect breeding habitat.
“If populations are using core mostly during the summer, it does not necessarily mean that they’ll use the core during winter. It’s really a habitat specific context,” concluded Smith.
Instruction Memorandums BLM issues long-awaited IMs for sage grouseWritten by Saige Albert
After Resource Management Plans came out on Sept. 22, 2015 from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to determine land use across the agency’s land in the West, on Sept. 1, BLM released seven Instruction Memorandums (IMs) to clarify how certain aspects of those plans will be implemented.
“Consistent with our unprecedented cooperation in developing the Greater sage grouse plans, the implementation policies we released were developed in coordination with our partners in the states and interested stakeholders,” BLM Director Neil Kornze said. “These IMs respond to state and stakeholder desires to see clear and consistent application of our management activities across the western Greater sage grouse states while providing the flexibility needed to respond to local situations and concerns. Although each policy guides the specifics of a single issue in great detail, they all share the same goal of effectively conserving the West’s sagebrush sea for the benefit of the people and animals who depend on it.”
The IMs cover oil and gas leasing and development; grazing permit review priorities; grazing management thresholds and responses; adaptive management triggers; disturbance tracking; effectiveness monitoring; and habitat assessment framework.
The purpose of an instruction memorandum is to guide agency folks in how to implement what is present in the Records of Decision for the Resource Management Plans (RMP).
Jessica Crowder of the Wyoming Governor’s Office says, “We compliment BLM for providing states, including Wyoming, the opportunity to offer comments on two occasions. It is clear that BLM listened and addressed our concerns in some areas.”
Crowder also notes, however, that several concerns were not addressed, and the Wyoming Governor’s Office believes that additional clarification is needed.
Jim Magagna of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA), however, comments, “I was very discouraged by what I saw in the IMs. They serve to emphasize the things in the Records of Decision for RMPs that were so discouraging.”
“In my first look, I didn’t see that they helped to clarify much, if anything,” he adds.
With the release of the documents just several weeks ago, Crowder notes that is it too early to tell what impact the IMs will have on Wyomingites.
“At a minimum the BLM should ensure that these IMs and the overarching RMPs have no negative impact on producers in Wyoming who are managing their lands properly or working to improve their management in consideration of Greater sage grouse,” she says.
Magagna notes that five of the IMs impact Wyomingites more than the other two.
The simplest one to understand discusses prioritization of grazing allotments.
“That IM shows that those allotments in sage grouse focal areas will the highest priority,” he explains. “Within those, allotments that are due to have permit revisions will be a priority.”
Additionally, those allotments that have been shown to not meet rangeland health standards are also of a priority to analyzes and potentially modify before they are renewed.
As Magagna continues to analyze the IMs, he says that WSGA membership will be kept apprised of the information contained in the documents.
“These are public documents, but they don’t have a public review process,” he adds. “We hope there is flexibility and Wyoming BLM is afforded some flexibility in implementation.”
There is some talk that states will develop additional IMs to further clarify what is included in RMPs.
Crowder adds, “We will continue to work with BLM Wyoming to ensure these IMs do not impact the positive work of ranchers across Wyoming.”
While the IMs will dictate management on the ground, Magagna also notes that the emphasis for many ag groups has been on language in another bill – the National Defense Authorization Act in the House of Representatives.
“That bill has language that would prohibit a listing of sage grouse for 10 years,” Magagna explains. “It would also give the states the option, not the obligation, to manage under approved state plans rather than under the federal plan for the next five years.”
“We would really like to see these measures pass,” he continues. “The federal government has said that Wyoming’s plan has adequate regulatory mechanisms, and we’ve heard the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior praise the ground-up, local efforts on sage grouse. We want to use our plans.”
Magagna further comments, “If we could get congressional relief, I think that will lead to renewed enthusiasm for work on what is reasonable to positively impact sage grouse.”
On the ground
With uncertainty in the future, Crowder notes that it is most important that producers stay involved in the monitoring and management of public lands that they use.
“This has been said before, but implementation may be a bit rocky at first. Adjustments to implementation strategies may need to occur to improve outcomes,” Crowder says. “This is best achieved if BLM – and the State of Wyoming – has input from ranchers on the process.”
Sage Grouse Implementation Team continues working on implementation of plans, mapping effortsWritten by Saige Albert
Cheyenne – With the release of a “not warranted” decision for sage grouse, followed by the Record of Decision (ROD) for Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Forest Service land use plan amendments, Wyoming’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team (SGIT) is facing another big question – how does Wyoming continue to balance conservation with economics while implementing these plans?
“This is a monumental effort,” SGIT Chairman Bob Budd commented. “We have to be patient as we implement these RODs.”
The SGIT will continue its work over the entirety of the implementation period for the BLM and Forest Service RODs, and Budd commented that over the next 30 days, team members will be working to identify discrepancies in the RODs.
While acknowledging that the work of SGIT is far from complete, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead spoke to the committee and praised their efforts. Mead added that the work of the team was important to the decision not to list the Greater sage grouse as endangered.
“We value wildlife and recognize what it does for our quality of life,” Mead said. “When a state like Wyoming, who gets 70 percent of its revenue from minerals, finds a way to balance wildlife and energy, it is a remarkable accomplishment. My heart-felt thanks goes to all of you. This has sent ripples across Wyoming and the West as a very positive step.”
“This effort will be recognized for many years to come on how to address issues with species,” Mead said. “The work of this team has continued to benefit the industry across Wyoming, and this decision was a direct result of its good work.”
As implementation occurs, BLM has designated $60 million in funding, and at the current point, work is ongoing to determine workload requirements and staffing needs.
“In getting these plans implemented, we understand that resources are needed, but can we partake in that as well so we can do the things we have committed to the process?” asked Jeremiah Reiman of Gov. Mead’s office. “There may be a push to add some resources to states.”
For example, Montana is working to improve their density disturbance calculation tool (DDCT) and is reportedly seeking some federal resources in the development of the plan.
While it is widely recognized that implementation of the RODs won’t be an easy task, Budd commented, “It is going to be bumpy, but if we have decent communication and do what we’ve done, we can raise our concerns and get them fixed.”
Others noted that, as the largest landscape-scale conservation effort ever undertaken, challenges are to be expected.
“It is up to us to continue this effort forward in an intelligent and patient way,” said Brian Rutledge of Audubon Wyoming. “We aren't shocked if we have issues, and we will work to solve them.”
Among their other efforts related to sage grouse, the SGIT has taken on an effort to enhance lek mapping throughout the state.
“In all of the leks identified throughout the state, it has become apparent that some of the data is incorrect,” commented Budd. “Our meeting in November will be focused on that.”
For example, Budd noted that the criteria used to identify leks have resulted in some areas being identified where birds do not exist.
Budd noted that they have also begun looking at and classifying lek quality.
“Do we have a way to account for the importance of a lek? Obviously a lek that has 400 birds is more important than one with four birds,” he said, also noting that an adjustment should be made based on the capability of an area to support birds. “There are no 400-bird leks in the Big Horn Basin, and there probably won’t be, so is a 40-bird lek one that is important there?”
In developing a comparative lek ranking system, a small committee tested a number of iterations, determining that a model that classifies the area within a lek as high, moderate or low productivity would be most effective.
“In our maps, the purple areas have the highest productivity in the core area,” Budd said. “The green is next, followed by the gray. The central core is where we have the most birds.”
For practical use, the model may be used to determine where to focus mitigation efforts first, as well as areas that are highest priority to avoid first in development.
“The purpose of this started with mitigation,” Budd commented. “We aren’t doing anything yet with this, but I think we will be looking at it down the road. We need to refine it and start looking at it closer.”
The committee’s next meeting will be held in January.
Sage grouse, grazing research project looks to pinpoint specifics over long-termWritten by Saige Albert
Cody – “The science is the easy part,” says Karen Launchbaugh of the University of Idaho on research. “The policy and the people are the complicated parts.”
Launchbaugh is the principal investigator of a large scale, 10 year, multi-million dollar research project where she looks at sage grouse and grazing.
“Our goal is to put some research behind the decisions that will be made by ranchers, agencies and lawyers,” she says.
Launchbaugh’s project was one of several funded by the Public Land Council’s (PLC) Endowment Trust in fiscal year 2015.
Inside the study
“We work with Idaho Cattle Association, University of Idaho, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Idaho Fish and Game Department and the Idaho Conservation League,” Launchbaugh explains. “We try to get a lot of different views on what needs to be studied.”
When looking at grazing, she asserts that there are only a few ways livestock grazing can affect grouse.
“Largely, it can affect the habitat,” Launchbaugh says of grazing. “There are a lot of studies on how tall grass needs to be and how much cover is necessary, but not much about lining up the habitat to the sage grouse. We are looking at how grazing affects the habitat and the grouse. It hasn’t been done much.”
Aside from cover, grass also provides fuel and forage, and Launchbaugh’s team is analyzing both as a part of the studies.
The term of the study – 10 years, says Launchbaugh, seems like a long time, but on the landscape, she notes that it isn’t long at all.
“We are looking at how spring grazing by cattle affects sage grouse habitat characteristics, demographics of sage grouse and fuel and wildfire,” she says. “Early on we decided that we would work with cattle, and we are looking only at spring grazing because it is coming up in court documents.”
Currently, they are focusing on four sites – two in southern Idaho on two grazing allotments and two in central Idaho.
“This year we added two more to have different places and see how grouse response might vary,” she comments. “We also never know when one might go up in smoke or if there will be a case that halts our work. We want to make sure we can finish.”
While the study has only been in place since 2014, Launchbaugh notes that their data shows an overall successful nesting rate.
“This summer, because of funds from PLC and Idaho Cattlemen’s, we were able to get a larger field crew out,” Launchbaugh comments.
The field crews in the study looked at hiding cover around the nest to determine how concealed the grouse is when she is laying on the nest. They also looked at if the birds are selecting good sites within the pastures and on a landscape scale.
“The first year, we had 43 percent of nests that were successful,” she says. “This summer we had 44 percent. Those are respectable numbers.”
Of the 10 pastures, the success rate of grouse nesting was consistent whether they were grazed or not.
Recognizing that a seven-inch stubble height for grass frequently comes up when talking about sage grouse, Launchbaugh mentioned that they looked at how to best measure stubble height.
“We look at drop height, leaf height and effective height,” she says. “I can’t tell anyone if this is going to be affected by season or the success of the grouse. This year, all of our plants were 20 centimeters, or over seven inches. It was a pretty good year, so we’ll be interested to see how it varies over time.”
Launchbaugh’s data has also pointed out that cattle graze between the shrubs, rather than underneath the shrubs.
“Grouse need grass under the shrubs, so just by measuring grass, that doesn’t get us to what affects the grouse,” she says.
“One of the things we are able to do is look at whether the pasture was grazed, where they are successful and if grouse are in areas that are heavily or lightly grazed,” Launchbaugh explains. “There was no relationship between grazing utilization patterns and the success, but that might be because we had low utilization levels.”
The highest utilization in the study so far was 29 percent.
“One of the challenges we are facing is how we can get heavier grazing,” she adds.
“The answer to the question about whether grazing is good or bad for grouse is yes,” Launchbaugh says. “It is good or bad, depending on what mangers do.”
Launchbaugh updated the Public Lands Council on her research at their annual meeting in early September 2015.
BLM looks toward implementation in sage grouse records of decisionWritten by Saige Albert
Casper – September marked the historic signing of range-wide Records of Decisions (RODs) for sage grouse amendments in the Bureau of Land Managements (BLM) land use plans.
“This was an extensive effort that hit every aspect of BLM,” said BLM’s Jenny Morton during a late-January Sage Grouse Density Disturbance Calculation Tool Training event in Casper. “The work was absolutely extensive.”
She added, “Even though the RODs are signed and out, we are trying to translate what the goals, objectives and management action included really mean on the ground.”
Morton said that with implementation, BLM is striving to be as consistent as possible while also recognizing that conditions on the ground and needs of individual areas are different.
“We need to consider how things mesh,” she explained. “At the same time, we need to start on consistent footing.”
Goals and objectives
Morton noted that while the Forest Service talks about Standards and Guidelines, BLM has similar goals, objectives and management actions.
“Our goals and objectives are more of what we hope to happen,” she explained. “The management actions are what we need to translate most consistently across field offices. We don’t have a list of those, and we aren’t ready to release those yet.”
BLM’s resource management plan (RMP) is working to translate what Wyoming’s Executive Orders mean to BLM, she added.
However, she continued, “There are places we have to differ because we are a multiple-use agency, and there are many complexities that the amendments and revisions introduce for our other uses.”
Morton also said that one of the benefits that BLM has in Wyoming is that the state and federal agency work very well together, but that isn't seen other places.
“We work so well with the state of Wyoming,” she said. “That is very different in many other states.”
The national-level guidance coming down was supposed to be completed within 90 days of the September RODs.
“That was Dec. 22, and we didn’t make that mark,” Morton said. “We are still working to put those together.”
At the same time, Morton noted that BLM is working on creating a comprehensive document that is error-free for the final version.
While implementing land use plans, Morton added that actions must be taken consistently across the board.
“We realize in this effort, that there were many activities we weren’t keeping track of. We were just not consistently keeping track of those from field office to field office, let alone from state to state,” she said. “We are working on improving that.”
Among their efforts, Morton said the agency working on a new tool to encourage consistent across-the-board data collection.
“Our National Operations Center is collecting all the databases from field offices across states to see how similar and different they are and to see if we can merge them into one tracking database,” Morton explained.
Finally, Morton noted that they are working on creating a national handbook that provides consistent guidance.
“I’ve been working on this with the Washington office,” she said. “This is all-encompassing guidance that spans past sage grouse conservation efforts. We are trying to figure out how to get all of our actions to fall within the lines of the sage grouse efforts.”
Within the process, Morton noted that BLM is working to avoid overburdening already strained resources.
“We are looking at a new infrastructure so existing workloads are not overburdened to collect monitoring data, work on mitigation and train everyone,” she explained.
In this process, Morton commented that five issues are currently under review by the agency.
“We are working with BLM and Wyoming’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team (SGIT) to put out interim guidance,” she said, noting that guidance will clarify the scope of the amendment and revisions. “If the management action is analyzed, it has to be amended. We have to look to the final alternative to finalize management actions.”
Second, they are also looking at sagebrush focal areas (SFAs).
“We have talked about how SFAs were designated from Fish and Wildlife Service as highly important landscape for sage grouse,” Morton commented. “They were included in some of the plan revisions, but not in the Lander plan because they were created after the plan was signed.”
Handling SFAs in that region is one area of concern.
Wyoming areas of concern
“The third item we’ll talk about is working on interim guidance for what to do with the third and fourth versions of the core area map,” Morton said.
A new version of Wyoming’s core area map was released in version four, with some changes from the third version, which BLM used in the RODs.
She commented, “We are consulting with the Wyoming BLM office to resolve that.”
Lastly, they are looking at the impact of winter concentration areas on sage grouse populations.
“We are currently working with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and SGIT to determine how we proceed forward,” Morton commented.
“Wyoming is ready, and Wyoming has a comprehensive structure in place,” Morton said. “We are standing by with ideas and solutions for the Washington office.”